Obituary: Clint Conatser (1921-2019)

RIP to Clint Conatser, an outfielder who was one of the last surviving members of the Boston Braves. He died on August 23 at the age of 98. Conatser played for the Braves from 1948-49.

Clinton Astor Conatser was born in Los Angeles on July 24, 1921. His SABR bio notes that he grew up playing ball with many other future big-leaguers. His American Legion teammates/Fremont High School classmates included Catfish Metkovich, Merrill Combs and Dick Conger. Rival George Washington High boasted Jerry Priddy, Lou Stringer and Eddie Malone. Bobby Doerr, who was a bit older, lived a few blocks away from Conatser; their fathers were fishing buddies.

With all that future big-league talent in one place, it’s unsurprising that scouts frequented the high school games. Cleveland scout Johnny Angel signed Conatser for $100 plus $75 a month. He was assigned to the Class-D Fargo-Moorhead Twins of the Northern League in 1939. He played for three different teams in that first year and hit a combined .261 with 9 homers. He played for two teams in both 1940 and 1941 and showed occasional pop at the plate.

Conatser enlisted in the Coast Guard after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and served in the military until 1945. During that time he was out of baseball, he was released by Cleveland. A free agent upon his return stateside, he began training with Doerr, who got him in touch with a Tigers scout. Detroit signed Conatser and sent him to the Dallas Rebels of the Texas League in 1946. In the two seasons he was in the Detroit system, he hit double digits in home runs and batted over .280. He also helped lead Dallas over the Atlanta Crackers in the 1946 Dixie Series and married Dorothy Schultz in between games of the Rebels’ playoff run. They had met while he was playing ball in Flint, Mich., before the War.

Most importantly, Conatser showed over the course of the two years that he could beat Cleveland’s expectations of him. The team had moved him to second base because they didn’t think he could be an effective outfielder. He went back to center field in the Tigers’ system and thrived there. “They didn’t think a little guy could hit a long ball or handle the long throws to the plate,” he told reporters. “But I guess I’ve kinda shown ’em.”

Clint Conatser (left) and Pete Reiser (center) review manager Billy Southworth’s (right) lineup against the Phillies. Conatser singled, doubled and homered in the game, making Southworth’s hunch to start him look like a genius move.

Even after defying expectations, Conatser didn’t have a place on the Tiger big-league roster. The Braves, on the other hand, took him in the 1947 draft of minor-leaguers (an early version of the Rule V draft). Bruce Conatser, Clint’s cousin and a Tigers scout, recommended him to Braves manager Billy Southworth. For the next two seasons, he would become a very capable backup outfielder who played all three positions. He also missed becoming a World Series hero by a few feet.

The 1948 Boston Braves won the NL pennant but lost out to the Indians in the World Series, 4 games to 2. They had a wealth of talent in the outfield, including Tommy Holmes, Jeff Heath and Mike McCormick. Conatser filled in at center field and left field and slashed .277/.370/.384 in 90 games. He hit 3 home runs, but one of them helped lead the Braves to a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Brooklyn on August 22, keeping the Dodgers in second place.

Conatser appeared in two World Series games, going 0-for-4 with an RBI. That RBI came in Game 6, in the 8th inning with the Braves down 4-1. Cleveland’s Bob Lemon had loaded the bases, and reliever Gene Bearden was brought in to face the pinch-hitter Conatser. He clobbered a deep fly ball to center field that looked like a Series-altering gland slam homer. The Indians’ Thurman Tucker tracked it down, and Conatser had to settle for a sacrifice fly. Phil Masi hit a 2-run double in the next at-bat (another one that just missed leaving the park), but Boston could get no closer than 4-3 to end the Series.

Conatser was beaned during a Spring Training game in late March 1949, fracturing his skull. Incredibly, he returned to the Braves within a couple of weeks and was back to his usual role of reserve outfielder. He was given a rare chance to start against Philadelphia on May 31, as Southworth played a hunch and sat Pete Reiser against a right-handed pitcher. Conatser responded by falling a triple short of a cycle, and he also walked to force in the winning run of a 7-6 triumph.

“I guess right once in a while,” said Southworth after the game. “And I’m glad of it, too. Clint’s a good fellow.”

Earlier in that series against the Phillies, Conatser cost the Braves with a poor throw from the outfield that contributed to a Philadelphia win. Still, he went 8-for-10 against the Phils with 2 home runs and 8 RBIs, raising his batting average on the season to .342. He maintained a .300 batting average through the month of June, but he struggled in July, with 5 hits in 36 at-bats. He was sent to the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers on July 15. In the offseason, Conatser was traded to Brooklyn as part of a deal that brought Sam Jethroe and Bob Addis to Boston. He never returned to the major leagues.

Conatser played a total of 143 games with the Braves, slashing .271/.352/.375. He had 102 hits, including 15 doubles, 3 triples and 6 home runs. He drove in 39 runs and scored 40 times, and he both walked and struck out 46 times.

He played in the minor leagues through 1952, staying mostly on the West Coast. In nine seasons in the minors, he batted .267 with 82 home runs. He announced his retirement from baseball on July 6, 1952 while playing with the Portland Beavers. He said he intended to enter into business with his father, a contractor in Los Angeles.

Conatser’s sister, Colleen, married Jim Baxes, a middle infielder who played briefly in the majors. As for Clint, he ran a successful heating and air conditioning business in the Valley and got involved with raising and breeding race horses.

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